The Power of the Pen: Nuruddin Farah & Jonathan Franzen
NURUDDIN FARAH: On my first day at school, a teacher, a man who was teaching me and who knew my name, asked me what my name was. And I said I couldn’t remember. And I was struck hard time and time again, but I insisted I didn’t know, and the reason is that I have never liked direct questions. And if somebody comes to me and says, “What is your name?” I never remember. And therefore when I received the question that said, “Does writing change anything?” I thought, Let me read this passage from Maps and then ask the audience if writing changes anything.
The man who was brought to circumcise me, when my turn came, made me sit alone, insisting that I read a few Koranic verses of my choice—and that I wait for him as he honed the knife he was going to use against a sharp stone he had come along with. I was overcome by fear—fear of pain, fear of being lonely, fear of being separated forever from Misra. (She wasn’t there anyway; she wasn’t allowed to come. In her place, there came a man, one of my many uncles.) The sticky saliva in my mouth, the drumming of fright beating in my ears, the numbness of my body wherever I touched, felt: my legs, my hands, my thighs, my sex, what pain!
Then the man asked me to look up at the heavens and to concentrate on anything my eyes fell on. There was an aperture in the clouds and there was a bird which I spotted, a bird flying high and in haste towards the opening in the heavens. I concentrated on the bird’s movements, concentrated on it until it became a dot in the heavenly distance. To mask my fear, I invested all my energy in the look, and the bird’s flight reminded me of similar flights of my own fantasies. When I looked again, I couldn’t see the bird. I could only see a tapestry of clouds which was woven in order to provide the bird with a hiding-place. The world, I told myself, was in my eyes and the bird had flown away with it, carrying it in its beak, light as a straw, small as an atom. Now that I had lost sight of the bird (I wasn’t sure if it was an eagle or if it wasn’t!), there was nothing but sunlight for a long while, and the sun was in my eye and it blinded me to the rest of the cosmos. Until the bird re-emerged out of the sun’s brightness, beautiful, feminine, playful, and it became again the center of my world and I was inside it, in flight, light as are children’s fantasies, impervious to the realities surrounding me, and then, sudden as bushfire, ZAK!
It is such a horrid territory, the territory of pain. And I crossed it alone—no thought of Misra, no amount of consolatory remarks made by the uncle who had come with me, and no verse of the Koran could’ve reduced the pain or even eliminated it altogether. Do I remember when the pain lodged in my body which it lived in for almost a month thereafter? It entered my groin first. Or rather, that is what I seem to remember. I recall thinking that I had seen the bird’s apparition and that the rest of the world had been small as a speck in the sky—then the man pulled at the foreskin of my manhood, producing, first in my groin, then in the remaining parts of my body, a pain so acute my ears were set ablaze with dolorous flames. These flames spread gradually—then my feet felt frozen, my eyes warm with tears, my cheeks moist with crying and my throat dry as the desert. It was only then that I looked and I saw blood—a pool of blood in whose waters I swam and which helped me cross to the other side so I would be a man—once and for all.
I saw the man break an egg. I couldn’t tell why he did so. Perhaps the idea was to reduce the pain or help stop my losing any more blood. I thought that the white and yellow of the egg mixed well with my own blood and the colors which I saw, the beauty of what I saw, took the pain away, for at least a few decisive seconds. My bare thighs were spotted with cold sprouts of pained hair and I rubbed them, smoothing the hair-erections so the blood would return. I was helped to stand, I don’t remember by whom, and was led away from the spot I had been sitting on. Possibly, the eggshell was the hat my manhood wore, possibly not; possibly, once the skin was pushed back, I was bandaged with cotton or other similar material, although I cannot remember anything save the pain, which made me faint. I awoke. Alone. On a bed.
JONATHAN FRANZEN: To the extent that the written word is a word of political utterance, it obviously can change something. Probably at least 50 percent of the time for the worse. For every Germinal there’s a Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for every Silent Spring there’s a tract by Rush Limbaugh, if not several. For every Communist Manifesto there’s the same Communist Manifesto put to a different use. For me, tonight’s question is interesting only as it pertains to really good books, to writers like Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy, to writing that’s too multifaceted or ambivalent or delightful to be socially effective. The question then becomes, Can the kind of writing that can’t change anything change something? And here I think at best we’re talking about very personal and subtle interior changes. I definitely feel as if I’ve been changed by Austen and Tolstoy, and yet the more closely I look at the relationship between the self and the words on the page, the more mysterious and tricky things get. I’m going to read a pair of little stories on the subject of this trickiness by the American fiction writer Lydia Davis. The first one is called “Almost No Memory”:
A certain woman had a very sharp consciousness but almost no memory. She remembered enough to get by from day to day. She remembered enough to work, and she worked hard. She did good work, and was paid for it, and earned enough to get by, but she did not remember her work, so that she could not answer questions about it, when people asked, as they did ask, since the work she did was interesting.
She remembered enough to get by, and to do her work, but she did not learn from what she did, or heard, or read. For she did read, she loved to read, and she took good notes on what she read, on the ideas that came to her from what she read, since she did have some ideas of her own, and even on her ideas about these ideas. Some of her ideas were even very good ideas, since she had a very sharp consciousness. And so she kept good notebooks and added to them year by year, and because many years passed this way, she had a long shelf of these notebooks, in which her handwriting became smaller and smaller.
Sometimes, when she was tired of reading a book, or when she was moved by a sudden curiosity she did not altogether understand, she would take an earlier notebook from the shelf and read a little of it, and she would be interested in what she read. She would be interested in the notes she had once taken on a book she was reading or on her own ideas. It would seem all new to her, and indeed most of it would be new to her. Sometimes she would only read and think, and sometimes she would make a note in her current notebook of what she was reading in a notebook from an earlier time, or she would make a note of an idea that came to her from what she was reading. Other times she would want to make a note but choose not to, since she did not think it quite right to make a note of what was already a note, though she did not fully understand what was not right about it. She wanted to make a note of a note she was reading, because this was her way of understanding what she read, though she was not assimilating what she read into her mind, or not for long, but only into another notebook. Or she wanted to make a note because to make a note was her way of thinking this thought.
Although most of what she read was new to her, sometimes she immediately recognized what she read and had no doubt that she herself had written it, and thought it. It seemed perfectly familiar to her, as though she had just thought it that very day, though in fact she had not thought it for some years, unless reading it again was the same as thinking it again, or the same as thinking it for the first time, and though she might never have thought it again, if she had not happened to read it in her notebook. And so she knew by this that these notebooks truly had a great deal to do with her, though it was hard for her to understand, and troubled her to try to understand, just how they had to do with her, how much they were of her and how much they were outside her and not of her, as they sat there on the shelf, being what she knew but did not know, being what she had read but did not remember reading, being what she had thought but did not now think, or remember thinking, or if she remembered, then did not know whether she was thinking it now or whether she had only once thought it, or understand why she had had a thought once and then years later the same thought, or a thought once and then never that same thought again.
A second story. Slightly sunnier, and as with Margaret, the sunnier thought is shorter. This story is called “Happiest Moment.”
If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then say it may be this story that she read in a book once: An English-language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said his wife had gone to Beijing and had eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck.